'This Poiosned Sea.' Quantume Leap, 2017. Photo: Lorna Sim

‘This Poisoned Sea.’ Quantum Leap

27 July 2017, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

This Poisoned Sea, Quantum Leap’s major show for 2017, took as ‘a launchpad’ (as the media says) Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Three choreographers, Claudia Alessi, Eliza Sanders and Jack Ziesing, presented separate sections, which were woven together into an evening length production, without interval, by artistic director Ruth Osborne, and with input from dramaturg Pip Buining. It was an ambitious undertaking.

The focus of the evening was largely on contemporary environmental issues, a focus that comes easily to mind given the subtext of the poem (despite that it was written at the end of the eighteenth century). But in the end we saw several different approaches, especially in terms of how references back to the poem were made.

Claudia Alessi’s work ‘My own private albatross’ made the most obvious statement about environmental issues, and perhaps, too, the most obvious reference to the poem when a voice-over clearly recited lines from the Coleridge work. Alessi’s section, which occupied the middle of the program, concerned the amount of plastic waste and other non-recyclable materials in the sea, and the effects that material is having on, for example, sea creatures. It grew out of the shock and concern Alessi felt at the amount of rubbish in the seas off Christmas Island, where she had recently spent time. The dancers used props frequently, including a long string of plastic bags and other detritus, which they dragged across the stage at various intervals.

Choreographically, however, Alessi’s section was the least interesting of the three for me. I found the movement a little too simplistic and it seemed like an addition, rather than an intrinsic part of the section.

Jack Ziesing’s ‘A hellish thing’ was the last section before Osborne’s finale. With its ongoing references to melting icebergs and black oil spills, it took quite a black view of today’s environmental issues.  His work seemed the least concerned with the poem itself and more completely with a twenty-first century perspective.

Jack Ziesing's A hellish thing from This Poisoned Sea, Quantum Leap 2017. Photo © Bec Thompson

Scene from Jack Ziesing’s ‘A hellish thing’ from This Poisoned Sea, Quantum Leap 2017. Photo: © Bec Thompson

The oil spills, represented by lengths of black cloth, dominated right up to the end of Ziesing’s section. The dancers draped them around their bodies, sometimes covering themselves entirely, until at the end one dancer found herself alone shrouded in black, apparently sheltering under the very material that is degrading the environment. Ziesing’s choreography was quite powerful and the dancers had some strong group sections, which they performed with gusto.

Jack Ziesing's A hellish thing from This Poisoned Sea, Quantum Leap 2017. Photo © Bec Thompson

Scene from Jack Ziesing’s ‘A hellish thing’ from This Poisoned Sea, Quantum Leap 2017. Photo © Bec Thompson

For me the standout section, however, was that choreographed by Eliza Sanders, which she had entitled ‘The poem is within us’. It followed immediately after Ruth Osborne’s introductory passage as the first section made by the commissioned choreographers. ‘The poem within us’ was subtle. It didn’t try to force us into anything, it didn’t try to be didactic, and it didn’t try to cover too many ideas within one short piece. The enduring image was that of an open mouth—’And every tongue through utter drought,/Was withered at the root’ says the poem. Was it a silent scream? Was it making the comment that the destruction of the environment is not being heard? So many thoughts surfaced.

Choreographically, too, ‘The poem is within us’ wasn’t full of forceful movement, but focused on changing patterns and on building groupings of dancers. The one jarring element was the use of live speech. A few lines of the poem were quoted by one of the dancers, but this is a trap for the unwary I think. It is never easy to hear clearly from certain parts of the auditorium and the voice-over recording that Alessi used was by far the better way to go. But that element aside,  Sanders takes an unusual approach to her work and I think she is a choreograph to watch.

There was much to admire about This Poisoned Sea in terms of the collaborative elements. Mark Dyson’s lighting was often spectacular, and I especially liked the black and white floor pattern he conjured up at one stage. Cate Clelland’s costumes were also an excellent addition to the overall work. The pants worn by all the dancers were cut in a subtle way so that they made passing reference to costumes from centuries ago, while the addition of extra elements (the black belts in Ziesing’s work for example) distinguished each section from the others.

This Poisoned Sea was an ambitious undertaking. But it remains in my mind as one of the best shows Quantum Leap has presented. The use of a dramaturg gave the work coherence, and the evening was well structured so that the work moved smoothly from the subtlety and beauty of Sanders, to the obvious from Alessi, to a strong contemporary comment from Ziesing.

Michelle Potter, 30 July 2017

Featured image: Scene from Eliza Sander’s ‘The poem is within us’ from This Poisoned Sea. Quantum Leap, 2017. Photo: © Lorna Sim

'This Poiosned Sea.' Quantume Leap, 2017. Photo: Lorna Sim

Scene from Jack Ziesing's work for 'This Poisoned Sea'. Photo: Maylei Hunt

Dance diary. June 2017

  • Jack Ziesing on This Poisoned Sea

I recently spoke to several people associated with This Poisoned Sea, a forthcoming production to be performed in late July by Quantum Leap, the senior performing group of Canberra’s youth dance organisation, QL2. The story I subsequently wrote for The Canberra Times has yet to be published and, as often happens in these situations, I was unable to use everything I gleaned from those who were kind enough to talk to me.

Independent dancer/choreographer, Jack Ziesing, is one of three choreographers engaged with this evening length work, which is inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He spoke to me in some detail about the thoughts behind his section, which was made during a residency early in 2017. It has already been performed in Melbourne and Canberra as a stand alone piece. Looking at some of the production images from those performances I was struck by the the black cloth that seemed to be used throughout his work, and the images of black figures that were posted on the walls of the QL2 studio and that had been used as inspiration.

‘I responded to the figures in black,’ Ziesing remarked, ‘because the black looks like clothing but draped in the right way it could also look like a flag, a weapon, or oil. I liked the idea of a transformable substance that the dancers could use to clothe themselves, protect themselves, and build with. But all the while it’s the very substance that contributes to the degradation of their environment. They are trying to shelter themselves with the very material that hurts them.

‘The tone of this work is definitely very dark. I am concerned for what the future holds and at times it can seem overwhelming and very hopeless. I wanted to convey this same sense of bleakness. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem gave such a strong example of the consequences of thoughtless action. I can’t help but want to do the same in my own medium.’

This Poisoned Sea, section by Jack Ziesing. Photo: © Maylei Hunt, from the Melbourne production, 2017

The other choreographers contributing to This Poisoned Sea are Caudia Alessi and Eliza Sanders. The full, three-section work will be performed at the Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, 27–29 July 2017.

  • News from New Zealand

Early in June, Royal New Zealand Ballet announced the appointment of Patricia Barker as its incoming artistic director. She replaces Francesco Ventriglia, who ended his contract with the company in mid-June. Barker was a principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet during the directorship of Kent Stowell and Francia Russell and, most recently, has been artistic director of Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan.

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A review by Jennifer Shennan of Neil Ieremia’s As night falls for Black Grace makes interesting listening at this link. ‘A poetic ode to our troubled world’ is how Ieremia describes it, but listen to what Shennan has to say.

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A comment from a New Zealand reader on my recent post about the Royal Ballet’s tour to Australia and New Zealand in 1958 sent me hunting for a photo of Anna Pavlova photographed in Wellington in 1926 by S. P. Andrew. The story goes, according to my correspondent, that Pavlova liked the photograph so much that she ordered 800 copies of it and paid in cash from a large black handbag! It is likely that the photograph below on the left is the one in question, although I rather like the one on the right as well, also taken in 1926 by S. P Andrew.

Anna Pavlova in Wellington, New Zealand, 1926 (1). Photo: S. P. Andrew, Alexander Turnbull Library
Anna Pavlova in Wellington, New Zealand, 1926 (1). Photo: S. P. Andrew, Alexander Turnbull Library

Two portraits of Anna Pavlova in Wellington, New Zealand, 1926. Photo: S. P. Andrew, Alexander Turnbull Library (left image, right image)

  • Rohalla

I was interested to hear that, as part of Refugee Week in the ACT, a dance-theatre work, based on the true story of a refugee from Afghanistan, whose name is Rohallah, was being produced for showing at the Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre. I went along to see it.

In my opinion, the work didn’t live up to expectations as a piece of professional dance and, given that Canberra’s several professional dance artists struggle hard to find sources of funding, I was taken aback to find that Rohallah had received support from the ACT government. It is not clear whether that support was financial or not, but apparently the ACT arts minister, Gordon Ramsay, was a first nighter. And indeed the ACT government logo appeared on the handout.

I plead with the ACT arts minister to consider in greater depth what his department is supporting We are grown-up, seasoned dance-watchers in Canberra. Please support work that treats audiences as such.

  • Press for June 2017

‘Pushing the boundaries of contemporary dance.’ Review of Sydney Dance Company’s Orb. The Canberra Times, 2 June 2017, p. 20. Online version

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2017

Featured image: Scene from Jack Ziesing’s work for This Poisoned Sea. Photo: © Maylei Hunt from the Melbourne production, 2017

Scene from Jack Ziesing's work for 'This Poisoned Sea'. Photo: Bec Thompson